History of religious cults in America's Northwest gets graphic-art treatment

When you search for religion news around the Pacific Northwest, what’s out there is definitely a mixed bag. The biggest religion story in years has been the break-up of Seattle's Mars Hill Church and the continuing saga of its one-time pastor, Mark Driscoll.

This week’s big story, broken by the Sydney Morning Herald, was that Driscoll’s invite to an Australian conference sponsored by the megachurch Hillsong had been rescinded. And so one alternative Seattle publication cribbed off the Driscoll angle by offering -- in graphic novel format -- a story titled “Predators and Prophets: A Comic History of Pacific Northwest Cults.” The subtitle: “Spiritually-motivated bioterrorism at Taco Time, 35 thousand year old Lemurian warrior gods in Yelm, LSD-fueled Queen Anne hippie cults, and much more.”

Figured I had to read that one, which begins thus:

The decline and disintegration of Mars Hill Church last year may have surprised some, but to others it was predictable, and not without precedent. The Pacific Northwest has been home to numerous utopian communes and fanatical religious groups, from the radical to the deeply conservative. Since the arrival of European Christianity and its normative pall, outsider and fringe belief has been a staple of the local culture. From Eastern philosophies to the syncretic, the Pacific Northwest has been a site of religious demagoguery for ages, and the present is no exception.
An apparent paradise of both penitent and celebratory climate, the Northwest hosts a tenacious diversity of believers willing to glom onto charismatic figures who claim to be direct or unique conduits of esoteric knowledge. In spite of disgrace, tattooed-bro-Jesus preacher Mark Driscoll has recently re-emerged to speak his “word” to adoring audiences, while some of the bearded figures of the Aquarian Age still reign, albeit over much-reduced kingdoms of Love.
That these characters and their communities emerge from the Pacific Northwest may not be surprising, but they still warrant consideration. Here are six stories of the most interesting among them.

This is the first religion article –- or graphic presentation as this is -- I’ve found in the Seattle Weekly. It’s not exactly straight news, but one takes what one can get in these parts.

Cartoonist Seth Goodkind then embarks on histories of the Creffield Cult in Corvallis, Ore., in the early 1900s;  J.Z. Knight’s “Ramtha School of Enlightenment” in the 1990s in Yelm, Wash.; Rancho Rajneesh in central Oregon from 1981-1985; the Indian Shaker Church in the 1880s on an island in Puget Sound; the Love Israel family in Seattle from the 1960s-1980s and Community Church and Bible Training Center in Burien, Wash., in the 1980s. His assessments aren’t exactly favorable, but at least he spreads his ire around, in that two of the six cults he profiles are non-Christian. Each group gets about six paragraphs, accompanied by black-and-white drawings. Here’s a sample:

(Bhagwan Shree) Rajneesh was a notoriously liberal Indian spiritual philosopher whose desultory journey began at his ashram in Pune, India. … (After an assassination attempt), Rajneesh’s authorized lieutenants, led by Ma Anand Sheela, bought a ranch in Wasco Country, Oregon and relocated followers arrived by the thousands, quickly transforming it into a small city. Between nitrous-oxide philosophizing, the bhagwan would take slow daily drives around Rancho Rajneesh in one of his 93 Rolls Royces as followers lined the road to watch him pass by.  But the locals didn’t take kindly to this invasion of orange-and-pink-robed Rajneeshees who overwhelmed local politics, renamed the town of Antelope “Rajneeshpuram” and demanded all sorts of development permits.

I reported on Rajneeshpuram in 1982 after a visit to the commune. I’d differ with the excerpt on one point: Rajneesh was known more as a guru than a spiritual philosopher.

The whole point of this piece is that the Northwest has been the site of religious experimentation for more than a century, ending, naturally, in the case of Driscoll. Which is unfair in that what Driscoll was preaching was hardly “esoteric.”

Also, the Northwest is not unique. Upstate New York was the birthplace of so many religious movements in the mid-19th century that it became known as the “burned-over” district. As for sheer number of cultic groups, California certainly beats the Northwest by a mile. I wish the illustrator could have delved into why the Northwest has been a home for the unusual and weird, but graphic-art pieces don’t pretend to be comprehensive.

I get that Goodkind's offering -- which, alas, is copyrighted, so I can't reproduce his art -- fits the quirky style of its host newspaper. The Seattle Weekly has done more serious work in religion coverage in the past. I hope they return to that. After all, religion is more than grist for cartoons.

Photo © Samvado Gunnar Kossatz. Used with permission

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